I sometimes get annoyed with John McWhorter, but when he’s good he’s very good, and his Aeon essay on euphemisms is probably the best thing I’ve read on this vexed topic. The core of his point is in this paragraph:
What the cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has artfully termed ‘the euphemism treadmill’ is not a tic or a stunt. It is an inevitable and, more to the point, healthy process, necessary in view of the eternal gulf between language and opinion. We think of euphemisms as one-time events, where one prissily coins a way of saying something that detracts from something unpleasant about it. That serves perfectly well as a definition of what euphemism is, but misses the point that euphemism tends to require regular renewal. This is because thought changes more slowly than we can change the words for it, and has a way of catching up with our new coinages. Since that is likely eternal, we must accept that we’ll change our terms just like we change our underwear, as a part of linguistic life in a civilised society.
But he discusses many concrete examples, such as these:
Crippled began as a sympathetic term. However, a sad reality of human society is that there are negative associations and even dismissal harboured against those with disabilities. Thus crippled became accreted with those overtones, so to speak, to the point that handicapped was fashioned as a replacement term free from such baggage.
However, because humans stayed human, it was impossible that handicapped would not, over time, become accreted with similar gunk. Enter disabled, which is now long-lived enough that many process it, too, as harbouring shades of abuse, which conditions a replacement such as differently abled. Notably, the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled later changed its name again to Rehabilitation, International; today, the organisation prefers to be known simply as ‘RI’, bypassing the inconvenience of actual words altogether. The story has been similar for retarded being replaced by cognitively impaired; for welfare, which today is more often referred to as cash assistance; or by the faceless initials of programmes disbursing it, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
The crucial thing is to be able to step back from our instinctive reactions to the way such words sound to us now — we can’t help but hear the superseded ones as sounding terrible and the new ones as clean and shiny — and to realize they’re steps on an escalator, moving slowly but inexorably, and the new ones will sound as bad to the next generation as the old ones do to us. It’s just one aspect of language change in action. (Thanks, Paul!)